Waiting to Inhale

Environmental Commentary by Liza Field

A Chemical Safety Improvement Act is under discussion in the Senate.

Why pay attention?

Let's just say some heavily-perfumed toxins have been coming out in the wash these days—and the dryer vent.

“I heard even bed-bugs hate those dryer sheets,” my neighbor said.

We were out for an evening hike through the neighborhood and the summery, was-fresh air.

But for the past block, we'd been dogged by a cloying, persistent, non-cling-free cloud of industrial-deodorizer—that fume which now, across the nation, signifies “clean” laundry.

It's hard to guess what, in nature, these “scents” are supposed to mime. This one had an insipidly-sweet, tootie-fruity fake-strawberry smell, plus a kind of port-a-toilet sanitation fragrance, undertoned with bouquet of oil-refinery.

“People even rub those darn things on their pet,” my neighbor said. “Maybe because bugs won't go near 'em.”

“Which proves bugs are smarter than people,” I reckoned, trying to inhale through the neck of my t-shirt. “They're bad for life forms in general.”

Warnings had emerged, in recent years, that most chemical fabric softeners constituted poison for America's four-legged housemates.

Dryer sheet chemicals cause animals abdominal pain, coma, seizures, central nervous system damage, kidney failure and death, warns the ASPCA (among several other veterinary/animal-welfare groups).

Not only do pets inhale the dryer-heated chemical fumes (including carcinogens that cause liver and kidney tumors), they often end up with these oils on their fur, then ingest them when grooming.

Few pet owners—or parents—would choose to slather poison on their pets, babies, dishcloths, bath towels or faces, much less inhale these toxins—if they had a clue that's what waited inside the package (decorated with daisies, cute puppies and words like “Country-Fresh!”).

But thanks to the powerful inhalant of anti-regulatory money now enfeebling lawmakers, household-product manufacturers have never been called to task on these poisons, nor even had to list ingredients.

Many of these petrochemical toxins (whose unidentified contents have to be ferreted out by researchers) are actually categorized as “hazardous waste.”

Which raises a question. Why is hazardous waste illegal when dumped outside or in household trash, but legal when dumped in a washer with baby clothes and t-shirts, then baked (via dryer) into toxic air pollution?

Well, given a free pass under the antiquated, handily-slack Toxic Substances Control Act (1976), manufacturers get to launder all kinds of unnamed poisons through your home and dishes, washers, bloodstream and surrounding watershed.

And you actually pay for this toxic waste—in every way.

In 2011, University of Washington researchers found over 25 volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in popular dryer sheets, including the carcinogens benzene (causes blood cancers like leukemia), limonene and acetaldehyde (cause nasal and throat cancer in animals).

Other of the detected chemicals like A-Terpineol, benzyl alcohol and linalool damage the central nervous system. Benzyl Acetate is linked to pancreatic cancer (and is absorbed through the skin).

Among seven air-pollutants already EPA-classified as “hazardous,” the team found ethylbenzene, methanol, o-xylene and toluene in “fabric-softened” laundry emissions.

These poisons contaminate ground water and kill wildlife. Exposure causes animals hearing loss, kidney failure, cancer and tumors.

“These products can affect not only personal health, but also public and environmental health,” said lead author, Dr. Anne Steinemann.

The same can be said of most chemical detergents.

The U.S. Geological Survey found persistent detergent metabolites in 69% of streams they tested in 2002. These metabolites include surfactants that break down into toxic byproducts in municipal waste water.

As estrogen-mimicking compounds, these toxins not only cause breast cancer, they are turning male river fish into pseudo-females in Britain and the United States.

On a personal level, consumers can buy Green Seal certified products free of these pollutants.

But contaminants continue flowing through countless uncertified products, thanks to that other persistent metabolite, industry money in politics.

Billions of bio-accumulative toxic influence dollars have washed into campaigns, lobbying and political careers, causing brain-damage sufficient for Congress to condone the poisoning of its nation’s waters and residents.

That's why the late Senator Lautenberg's transparency-requiring Safe Chemical Act, viable back in May, got washed out, chemically-treated and perfumed into a nice-sounding mutation, the Chemical Safety Improvement Act.

The currently-proposed bill would enable continued non-transparency of product contents, while largely preventing states from independently regulating toxic chemicals.

Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Working Group, who lobbied for Lautenberg's earlier legislation, are now calling for a revised bill with enough actual cleaning power to penetrate the industry's cloud of secrecy.

Until then, “buyer beware” appears the one safe solution.

Liza Field teaches English and philosophy in the Virginia Governor’s School and Wytheville Community College. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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